Monday, May 21, 2018

Ancient Cliff Dwellings and Modern Disappointments: A National Park Odyssey Day 40

Mesa Verde to Montrose, CO

Listen to our podcast about this park here!

Mesa Verde National Parks' Cliff Palace
Our fortieth day began with a free breakfast at Mesa Verde National Park! The night before I had noticed that the trash in our hotel room hadn’t been emptied after the last guests checked out.  Disgusted, I called the front desk to complain, and we were given four complimentary breakfast passes at the Far View Terrace Café to make up for the mistake.  (They also sent someone to empty the trash, of course.) 
Free Breakfast!!
After breakfast, we drove to the Balcony House area of the park for our first ranger-led tour of the day.  Balcony House is an ancient cliff dwelling built by the Puebloan people who lived in the area from about 500 AD to about 1300 AD.  The people lived and farmed on the top of the mesa for 600 years before moving into the cliff dwellings in the late 1100s, and then they migrated south less than 200 years later.  Ranger Diana warned us in advance about the tunnels and the 32 foot entrance ladder, making us even more excited to visit this cliff dwelling.
We loved the fonts on the park signage.
Josh and Knox climb the 32 foot ladder that leads to Balcony House
Josh prepares to squeeze through one of the tunnels to get to Balcony House.
Kinley emerges from one of the tunnels through an ancient doorway.
Ranger Diana teaches us about the ancient Puebloans at Balcony House.

Knox and I listen as Ranger Diana tells us about the kiva below us.

Balcony House has about 40 rooms including kivas which are ceremonial rooms.  The room for which the site was named has a window with a little wooden balcony that has endured for more than 800 years.
Josh climbs out of the Balcony House cliff dwelling.

After our tour, we had to hurry to our next tour.  The drive to Cliff Palace was only about 5 minutes, but a wrong turn on a one-way loop made us fear we’d miss our time slot. We made it in time to hear Ranger David Nighteagle make his introductory remarks before leading us through the locked gate and down the cliff for our hour-long tour.

Cliff Palace is a larger dwelling than Balcony House and probably housed about 100 people when it was in use.  Ranger Nighteagle pointed out ancient artwork and handholds carved into the stone walls that allowed the Puebloans to climb up to their farmlands on top of the mesa.  He talked to us about the lives of the people who inhabited the area and about possible reasons for their migration south.  But the best part of his tour came at the very end when he took out his handmade Lakota flute and played a song to thank the spirits of the ancient Puebloans for allowing us to visit their home.  It was haunting and beautiful and poignant and perfect.  As we made the climb back to the top of the mesa, Ranger Nighteagle told us about his Lakota grandfather who refused to be referred to as a Native American.  “All my life I’ve been called an Indian and now you want to change that?” his grandfather had asked.  “No way.  I’m an Indian.”
Knox, Kinley, and I with Cliff Palace behind us

Knox and Kinley at Cliff Palace

Ancient painted walls at Cliff Palace

Ranger David Nighteagle prepares to play his Lakota flute for us.

Knox climbs out of Cliff Palace.

Back on top of the mesa, we continued on the loop drive to the Pit House, an ancient remainder of the dwellings the Puebloans used before they built the cliff dwellings.  Continuing around the loop we came to an overlook where we could see Square Tower House, and then we decided it was time for lunch.  The Spruce Tree Terrace Café near the Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum had a smoker set up outside and was serving up some delicious barbecue.  We chowed down on ribs and pulled pork before wandering across the street and into the museum.

Inside a covered shelter was the foundation of an ancient pit house where the Puebloans lived before the cliff dwellings were built.

The Square Tower House as seen from above on the mesa

Time for some lunch!

Inside, we were all fascinated by the 1960s-era dioramas depicting Puebloan life.  The hand-lettered interpretive signs were like something out of a museum time capsule with hand-drawn borders decorating the sides of many.  We were most impressed with the ancient sandals and 1500 year old corn.  The kids found plenty of information in the museum to help them finish up their Junior Ranger booklets, and at a table in the courtyard, a ranger waited to swear them in.
Kinley admires a diorama depicting ancient life.

Artifacts from the cliff dwellings including sandals

Hand-lettered signs and ancient corn cobs

The kids earn their Junior Ranger badges.


Badges in hand, we piled back in the car started our 3 hour drive to Montrose, Colorado, just outside of Black Canyon of the GunnisonNational Park.  This park has no park lodge, so we were staying in the Black Canyon Motel in Montrose.  In the motel lobby was an advertisement for the town’s county fair which was apparently happening that very night within walking distance of the motel.  Since I’m a sucker for small-town Americana, I convinced the rest of the family that we really needed some carnival rides, rigged midway games of chance, and fair food in our lives.  They grudgingly agreed, and we followed our noses to the fairgrounds nearby singing “Our State Fair is a Great State Fair” the whole way.

Much to my dismay, there were no carnival rides or midway games, and the only fair food was being served at two lonely booths sandwiched between the Port-a-Potties and the Montrose County Emergency Management information table.  In fact, the fair was really just a small-town horse show with deep-fried Oreos and spiral-cut fries. So, of course, we ate some deep-fried Oreos and spiral-cut fries.

Disappointed and no longer singing about great state fairs, we walked dejectedly back to our motel to turn in for the night, holding out hope that the park we’d be visiting the next day wouldn’t bring the same amount of disappointment.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Monuments and Mesas: A National Park Odyssey Day 39

Monument Valley to Mesa Verde

Here's a link to our podcast about this park.
Kinley and Knox with the beautiful rock formations in the background
As the sun streamed in through the picture window in our little cabin overlooking Monument Valley in Arizona, we could see the tour companies with the backs of their pickups trucks outfitted with bench-style seating already taking guests on the bumpy road down into the valley and around the rock formations.  We had elected not to book a tour but rather to drive the loop on our own even though someone in Moab had told us that hearing the stories about the formations told by a Navajo with deep connections to the land was well worth the extra cost.  Since we were going on to Mesa Verde, we decided that investing the extra time in a guided tour might mean that we wouldn’t arrive at our next destination before the visitors’ center closed.  (Plus the dusty ROAD meant that all of the passengers were covered in red dirt.)

After packing the car and checking out, we followed the signs to the dirt road that made a loop through the desert landscape and its desolate beauty.  As soon as we pulled onto the well-worn lane, we could see why the Navajo Department of Transportation had been up all night doing maintenance in this area (though it had done little to make the road better).  What amounted to little more than a narrow cow path was pocked with potholes, and we were shocked that some visitors were attempting the 17-mile loop in sedans rather and 4-wheel drive vehicles. 13 of the 17 miles are on a one-way road, so once we got started, we couldn’t change our minds.

The first formations on the route were the ones we’d seen from our cabin, East and West Mittens and Merrick Butte, and we continued on past Elephant Butte, the Three Sisters, the Thumb, and the Totem Pole.  We even found one that reminded us of Josh’s dad’s hand with its crooked pinky finger.  In all, there were 11 marked spots along the route through the strikingly beautiful valley famous for its presence in many Western movies. 
The Totem Pole formation is the tallest formation on the far right of the picture.
Yep.  It pretty much looks like a big thumb.
This is the one that we think looks like Josh's dad's hand with its crooked pinky finger!

And it was movie inspiration that had brought us to Monument Valley in the first place.  As I mentioned in my post about Route 66 on Day 11 of our trip, Knox had been wanting to visit for years because of the Disney movie Cars.  But zooming around the rock formations race-track-style and turning right to go left a la Doc Hudson wasn’t an option on this rutted, bumpy thoroughfare.  I’m happy to report that the trusty Volvo made it out unscathed, but it was touch and go for a few minutes along the way.

After the experience, Josh said, “I’d like to say that this was the worst road I’ve ever driven on in America, expect that it’s not really America.  It needs, like, an asterisk or something.”  To which Knox replied, “Not America??!!  How can you say it’s not America?! It’s, like the Americaest America there is!”

Navajo sovereignty is complicated.
We had lunch at Twin Rocks Trading Post which had both good food and interesting Native American arts and crafts.

And I guess we hadn’t had our fill of the complicated part, because our next stop (after a very tasty lunch of Navajo tacos at Twin Rocks Trading Post) was Four Corners, another area of Navajo sovereignty where four US states meet at one celebrated point.  The sun was blazing, and there was no shade to shield us while standing in line for our turn to take the obligatory straddling-four-state-borders picture, so we sent the kids to check out the stalls selling Navajo crafts in the only area protected from the sun while Josh and I waited.  When it was finally our turn, we were careful to obey the sign instructing us to take no more than 3 photos (unlike the group in front of us that patently disobeyed the edict). 
Kinley touches four states simultaneously

After getting shots of each kid sprawled across four zip codes, we went in search of the facilities.  I mean, after all, we had just walked across Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico.  We were disappointed to see that the relatively-recently constructed restrooms were not in working order, so we had to use the Porta Potties in the gravel parking lot.  Not pleasant in such heat.

Moving on to our next adventure, we drove on to Colorado and Mesa Verde National Park.  Josh and I had differing expectations for this park—mine were high, his were low—so it was going to be interesting to see whose were more accurate.  Rather than staying in the gateway city of Cortez, we continued our streak of National Parks lodges with the Fair View Lodge which houses a highly-rated restaurant called the Metate Room.  Our plan was to stop at the visitors’ center, buy tickets for a tour of the cliff dwellings for the following day, check in to the lodge, and then eat in the Metate Room. 
We made it to park #20
Unfortunately, just after we arrived inside the park and snapped the requisite sign pictures, the skies opened and a rainstorm unlike any we’d seen all summer commenced.  Undaunted, Josh parked the car illegally near the visitors’ center and took one for the team, sprinting inside to buy our tickets in spite of the downpour while the rest of us waited in the car. 

The park’s ancient cliff dwellings can only be visited on ranger-guided tours, so we needed to purchase our tickets for one of the next day’s tours.  The tickets are reasonably priced at $5 per person, but you can’t buy them online.  You have to show up in person no more than two days in advance, and the website said you weren’t allowed to buy tickets to both the Balcony House and the Cliff Palace during peak season.  You had to choose just one and hope that tickets were available when you got there. While the kids and I waited in the car, we kept our fingers crossed that we’d be able to nab a spot in one or the other.

After a few minutes, Josh came dashing back to the car, soaking wet but victoriously clutching four tickets for the Balcony House tour.  “They even had tickets left for the Cliff Palace tour! And the lady said that you could buy both!” he announced.  “Should we?”  Bless his heart.  He was willing to go back out in the torrential rain to get us tickets to the second tour.  So of course I let him.

Once we got to the lodge (which is really more like a nice motel), the rain slacked off and we were able to schlep our luggage inside without getting too wet.  After settling in, we made our way to the Metate Room with its curved wall of windows overlooking the plateau and its local, sustainably-sourced cuisine.  We had heard great things about this restaurant and were not disappointed.
Pickled Strawberry Salad

Rattlesnake & Pheasant Sausage with Caramelized Onions

Roasted Corn on the Cob with Black Bean Pico

Crispy Prickly Pear Pork Belly

Seared Sockeye Salmon with Citrus Beurre Blanc

The rattlesnake & pheasant sausage and the roasted corn on the cob were both standouts, but everything we ordered was delicious.  And you can’t beat the view!
The dining room at the Metate Room. (Photo courtesy of Aramark) 

Friday, April 27, 2018

10 Tips to Save Money While Studying Abroad

Josh and I were recently asked by Purdue University's Department of Financial Aid to be guest bloggers in their MyMoney blog!  One of Josh's former students is now working on the blog, and she knew that Josh had taught in Purdue's study abroad programs three times - once in Italy and twice in London.

While we had plenty of tips to share on our own, we asked our friend Cassidy Ward for tips as well.  Cassidy had just returned from studying in Greece for a semester, and so she had a fresh take on what college students need to know.

Follow this link to find our 10 Tips to Save Money While Studying Abroad!  

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

A Storm in the Desert: A National Parks Odyssey Day 38

Canyonlands National Park to Monument Valley Tribal Park

Here's a link to our podcast about this park.
Our 19th park
On the morning of Day 38, we got up early, checked out of the relative haven of our Fairfield Inn, and set out for our 19th park of the trip, Canyonlands National Park.  This relatively obscure park is only 40 minutes from Moab, Utah, so it’s an easy addition to any trip to Arches National Park.  We got an early start because we wanted to visit this park before traveling on to Monument Valley where we’d be spending the night.

When we arrived, we made straight for Grand View Trail where a bus full of Chinese tourists was already snapping pictures of the stunning view.  We were worried that this would make for a crowded trail, but it turned out that most of them stayed within a few feet of the bus so we needn’t have been concerned. 

We struck out on the easy two-mile round-trip trail along the edge of a high plateau that dropped off into a deep canyon, and only saw two other people on the trail once we left the trailhead full of tourists.  At the trail’s end, the view was nearly 270 degrees, so we sat down to enjoy the vista.  We could see canyons, needles, and even part of the 50-mile backcountry driving trail that takes two or three days to do down below.
You can see why they named it Canyonlands - canyons followed by canyons followed by more canyons.

Being at the edge of a plateau and seeing formations as far as the eye could see was very different from the view at the Grand Canyon.

Notice the driving trail in the bottom of the canyon.

We took a break to enjoy the view before turning around to head back to the car.

Once we returned to our car, we drove to the Mesa Arch Trail to walk a 0.6 mile loop to the park’s most famous formation.  This trail was more crowded, so we once again had to wait our turn for a picture in front of the arch.  Of course, it was nothing like the wait andthe crowds at Delicate Arch in Arches National Park.
Unfortunately the person who took our picture didn't get the canyons in the background in the shot.

Canyons through Mesa Arch

Satisfied with our picture, we headed for the park visitors’ center to fulfill the requirements for yet another Junior Ranger badge.  Since we’d already done two trails, the kids were able to complete the booklet inside the visitors’ center while Josh and I waited.  And then it was onward to Monument Valley. 
Kinley and Knox work on their Junior Ranger booklets.

Adding another badge to their ever-growing collection

On our way, we were surprised to see billboards, t-shirts, and bumper stickers taking sides on the issue of Bears Ears NationalMonument.  There was definitely local support for both sides, and we came away less clear about the issue than we had been to start with.  
Just one of the billboards we saw

As we approached the Navajo Nation’s tribal lands, we began to see roadside stands selling arts and crafts made by Native Americans.  We stopped at one, and Knox bought a small club-like tomahawk made by the son of the man who sold it to him.  Just a bit farther down the road we came to the checkpoint to pay our $20 per car entrance fee into Monument Valley.  I was fascinated by the way that since the Nation is sovereign on its lands, it has its own police force and department of transportation (which was in the apparently in the middle of a huge upgrade project on the road that loops through monument valley).  After snapping a couple of pictures of trucks emblazoned with the insignia of the Navajo Nation, we made our way to The View Hotel which is owned and operated by the Nation as well.  
I'm sure I looked like a nut taking pictures of a police car.
I wonder if the Navajo DOT is any more efficient than the Indiana DOT....

One of the drawbacks to 47 days of travel is that you kind of lose track of some of the details sometimes, and this was one of those times.  We unloaded all of our stuff from the car and went in to check in only to learn that we weren’t actually staying in The View.  We were booked in the new Premium Cabins located near the facility’s campground.  It took us a few minutes to figure this out since the reservation system at The View Hotel isn’t connected to the system at the Premium Cabins.  Yep.  You read that right.  It’s all the same ownership, and the two locations are a stone’s throw from each other, but neither place can access the other’s reservations.

When the lady at the front desk called down to the campground to check on our reservation, no one was answering the phone.  We stood there for several minutes marveling at the fact that this seemed like a problem from the pre-internet days, and finally, someone at the campground answered the phone and confirmed our reservation there.  We loaded back up and drove to our little cabin with its perfect view of the east and west mitten formations just before a dramatic storm rolled in.
Our little cabin was just the right size and had a great location.

The kids got to sleep on the bunk beds tucked into a tiny room just for them.

You can't beat the view out the front window!

In some of my fondest memories of my mother, she is playing her guitar and singing folk music.  Sometimes it was at home with friends.  Sometimes it was at weddings or receptions.  Sometimes it was “Turkey in the Straw.”  Sometimes it was “Puff the Magic Dragon.”  But often, it was John Denver’s “Annie’s Song.”

You fill up my senses
Like a night in the forest,
Like a mountain in springtime,
Like a walk in the rain,
Like a storm in the desert,
Like a sleepy, blue ocean.
You fill up my senses
Come fill me again.

Until our night in Monument Valley, I’d never experienced a storm in the desert, but now I can say with certainty that John Denver was right.  A storm in the desert does fill up your senses. 
We are pathetic photographers, but we were determined to capture the beauty of that storm.  We snapped and snapped and deleted and deleted until we got several that were decent.  We even managed to get a couple of shots with both a lightning strike AND a rainbow!  
The lightning coupled with the rainbow made for an amazing view.

Even though the heavy rain obscured our view of the mittens for a few minutes, the rainbow was still visible.

After the storm passed, the formations turned beautiful shades of orange and russet.

Watching the storm advance toward us and change the appearance of the rock formations was mesmerizing, but we felt sorry for the guests who had chosen to set up tents for the night.  They were fighting just to keep their shelters from blowing away.
We were glad we weren't staying in these tents!  You can see The View Hotel in the distance as well as the water tanks that supply the hotel.  There is no fresh water source on this part of the Nation's lands, so they have to buy it.

Once the storm subsided, we drove back up to The View for dinner at the hotel restaurant since there were no other options in the area.  There was a significant wait, so I suggested to Josh that we order takeout and eat it in our cabin.  We had both the World Famous Green Chile Stew and the Red Chile Pork Posole along with some salads and some fry bread, a local menu staple of deep fried discs of flat dough.  We browsed the overpriced handicraft shop while we waited for our food, and then felt smug as we noticed that the people who would have been ahead of us in line to eat were still waiting to be seated.

As darkness veiled the rock formations just a few hundred yards from our front porch and as a million stars appeared in the night sky, we happily feasted in the comfort of our little cabin.  The next day we would explore Monument Valley and head to park number 20 – Mesa Verde.